Pumped Up Kicks
Violence over Air Jordans continues nearly three decades after their introduction.

By Kelsey Johnson
A basketball rolls across the scene, kicked up by a pair of red and black sneakers — the original Air Jordans — into the hands of the icon himself. The sound of an airplane turbine begins to climb, preparing for takeoff alongside the legendary Jordan’s spread-eagle ascent.

It’s all about the dunk.

The 1985 Air Jordan 1 commercial ends with a voiceover, the original Nike “wings” logo superimposed: “Who said man was not meant to fly?”

Michael Jordan is the epitome of success, of perseverance, mobility, status and, as suggested in this advertisement, flight.

His shoes have become an enduring staple of basketball culture and have evolved into a fashion all their own. The jump man insignia is so ubiquitous that its presence is hardly noticed, and is simply expected to adorn the apparel of the world’s greatest athletes. Yet the shoe’s success has not been void of controversy, as the fabric of the Air Jordan campaign has been stained by continuous violence.

This is nothing new. Back in 1990, Rick Telander wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated on the very same problem: “Your Sneakers or Your Life.” The piece begins with the story of 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas who was strangled in a woods by his teammate and left barefoot — stripped of his two-week-old Jordans. The story literally poses the question: “In America’s cities, kids are killing kids over sneakers and other sports apparel favored by drug dealers. Who’s to blame?”

Yet even now, 24 years later, Telander’s original question remains largely ignored as the demand for the sneakers continues to increase. Lines wrapped around malls and department stores for Nike’s black and white retro Jordans back in 2011, where customers braved gunfire, fistfights, pepper spray and trampled bodies to grab the limited release. And as recently as this past December, videos of fights flooded the Internet after the release of the Air Jordan 11 Retro Gamma Blue.

Even in the wake of Michael Eugene Thomas’ murder, young men are still facing senseless killings over “kicks.” Sixteen-year-old Juan Reyna and 15-year-old Paul Sampleton Jr. were murdered in December 2012. Then there was Joshua Woods, a 22-year-old who was shot and killed that same year, leaving behind a 5-year-old son. After his death his mother, Dazie Williams, created a campaign in his honor called “Life Over Fashion.”

“I felt that it was my responsibility to do something so that no other mother, father or family will endure what my family is going through,” Williams says. “I have a petition on my website and my petition is just to implement a better plan when it comes to selling, releasing, marketing the Air Jordan shoe. There’s a lot of gun violence and senseless violence affiliated with the release and how these shoes are marketed.”

Her suggestions include increasing the number of shoes made to ensure they’re more accessible and to limit the release of online-only products as an added safety precaution. While Williams has received acknowledgement in the form of a hand-written note from a Nike executive and a phone call from Michael Jordan — he too had a family member, his father, die over senseless violence — she’s still waiting, over a year later, to hear what they plan to do about this violence.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend.

Spike Lee sits on a stoop, a book of biblical proportions resting on his knee, “Our story, children, begins in the county of Kings in Brooklyn, New York, 1963,” he declares. He recites the well-rehearsed doctrine of Michael Jordan — a boy who woke up at 5 a.m. to practice, who was cut from his high school team, who went on to earn six championship titles in the NBA.

Lee preaches from atop a barbershop throne, on a school bus, in the streets, “And this time his retirement was final. But don’t be sad — it doesn’t end there. Because somewhere, someone is practicing.”

Will you be the one?

Maybe “the one” could have been Anton Winston. A native to Jordan’s Chicago, the 23-year-old grew up playing in various leagues and the occasional pick-up game in the city’s south side. He went on to receive a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at the American Institute of Business in Des Moines until an ankle injury forced him out of competitive play. The opportunity, however, allowed Winston to complete a degree in business administration, and he became the first in his family to graduate from college.

Chicago native Anton Winston grew up shooting hoops only to have to leave competitive play due to an ankle injury.

Chicago native Anton Winston grew up shooting hoops only to have to leave competitive play due to an ankle injury.

“Growing up, Michael Jordan was the basketball icon for everybody,” he says. “But I just liked him just for being a basketball player. He was great — he was one of the greatest.”

Undoubtedly one of the league’s all-time biggest stars: With six NBA Championship titles, and second highest MVP recipient (exceeded only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Jordan is indeed a figure of epic proportion.

Signed to the Chicago Bulls in 1984, Jordan was awarded Rookie of the Year, finished third in the league averaging 28.2 points, and set a rookie record scoring 49 points in one game. After his noteworthy debut, he signed with Nike (after being rejected by Adidas, his first choice) with the possibility of making $7 million in the first five years.

While ignited by his unprecedented accomplishments on the basketball court, Jordan’s name has been preserved by his prolific marketing campaign. He has been immortalized through Like Mike and Space Jam, the number 23 and the “Jumpman” Nike logo. Today “Jordan” is as much a basketball shoe as he was ever a player.

Michael Hill, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, focuses a portion of his academic attention on the study of “black celebrity.” And while he acknowledges Jordan’s exceptional talent and breakthrough achievements, Hill also credits Jordan’s fame in part to his specific style of play.

“This is the moment, the apotheosis or the sort of end game of Dr. J’s emergence as a star in the league and the idea that a more improvisational flow is going to emerge,” Hill says. “But what’s intriguing about Jordan, then, is that he takes competitiveness in the form of trash-talking, in the form of seeking to psych-out your opponents and to get inside their heads. It has a very strong place in the street game. So he’s able to be viewed as an athlete who has credibility in the street incarnation of the game because he talks trash and pops gum all the while dropping 50 on you.”

As a rookie Jordan was able to master competing modes of player-presentation. He was simultaneously the perfect corporate and league spokesman as well as a “bad-boy” able to maintain his street cred. It didn’t take long for the rookie standout to transform into one of the biggest business moguls of the 21st century.

Jordan’s successes have bled into a legend. So much so that Lee’s reading of Jordan’s story like a fairy tale seems appropriate, even expected. Our hero is presented as a larger-than-life success, yet he remains accessible. He is at once untouchable and a role model.


“On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game.”

In the first-ever Air Jordan commercial, the camera pans down to Jordan’s feet, two black rectangles slapped across each shoe to the sound of a jail gate slamming.

“Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.”

The red and black high-tops were originally priced at $65 and released to the public in 1985. Kids around the country yearned to emulate their favorite basketball players, and for them the shoes came to embody the stars who wore them.

Among basketball’s biggest fans at the time was 11-year-old Ben Osborn. Growing up in New York City, Osborn bought three AJ1s in a row, all worn out to the sole with love.

“(Basketball) is the only sport where you can kind of wear what your favorite players wear to school, or to work as you get older, and when you’re hanging out. So I loved that aspect of it,” says Osborn, the now editor-in-chief of Slam Magazine and the annual Kicks magazine, which honored the AJ1s in both its 10th anniversary issue in 2007 and in its latest issue, “Basketball Sneakers that Changed the Game.”

He still defaults to the AJ1s as one of his all-time favorite shoes. “Jordans I loved; I loved him,” he says.

The NBA did in fact ban the AJ1 based on rules concerning shoe color restrictions, and Nike had to pay a $5,000 fine for every game Jordan wore them.

It couldn’t have paid for better publicity in anticipation of the shoe’s release.

It was the perfect recipe for success: the league’s emerging star, a revolutionary shoe design and unprecedented backlash against a spokesperson who was able to preserve his street appeal. The bad-boy shoe had arrived.

And that persona has maintained itself over the years. Take Mike Will’s 2013 hit “23” featuring Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J. The video takes place in, of all places, a high school. The principal locked out of his office, the gymnasium turned into a giant party, students making-out in abandoned classrooms, and a modern day Rizzo (Cyrus) smokes cigarettes and smears lipstick on the bathroom mirror. The song’s refrain, “Js on my feet, so get like me,” solidifies the video’s foundation: Owning Air Jordans makes you a badass.

The NBA ban was crucial for the success of the AJ1s, especially considering the shoe’s primary marketing demographic. An ethnography conducted by Vern Kenneth Baxtera and Peter Marina explores hip-hop fashion and its cultural impact on African-American youth subculture. The study shows how attitudes toward institutions impact the fashion choices of young black males. It suggests that dress styles embraced by the subculture symbolize the conflict between the conduct inspired by prisons and gangs and established authority figures.

The popularity of such prison-inspired clothing is hardly surprising when comparing the numbers. A staggering 28.5 percent of black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to 4.4 percent of white men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fashion becomes an act of rebellion; a show of pride and solidarity stifled by a history of institutional repression and marginalization.

“You have the rise of a black middle class, the 33 percent black middle class is coalescing in the 1980s,” Hill says. “This is the black middle class that has disposable income that it actualizes that in some people’s minds epitomizes the attainment of the American dream. But at the same moment you also have a burgeoning underclass and his tennis shoe, that perhaps curiously weds a narrative of negotiating American reality in the 1980s pretty aggressively.”

A middle class that not only has money to spend, but a heightened awareness of which brands they support. A 2011 study by Robert Lyons cited a finding that since 1990, the buying power of African-Americans has risen 187 percent. Not surprisingly, the study also found that African-Americans spent more on athletic footwear than any other race in 2006, and are — in comparison to other Millennial racial segments — more brand loyal when it comes to athletic shoes.

The influence of the “banned” marketing campaign has continued to define the persona of the Air Jordans some 30 years later. Yet the reality of the campaign is oddly disjointed with its own philosophy. In part a symbol of unity, Air Jordan sneakers contradict their own sentiment, causing the brand’s most loyal customers to embody MJ’s sense of competition — not against the repressors — but against one another. And little is being done to stop it.

“Here we are in 2014 and lives are still being taken. The product is still being released in the same fashion,” Williams said. “Lives have been taken and what are we doing? What commercials do we see? What communications do we see other than the generic letter asking people to shop responsibly? But what are we doing before anything happens? What are we doing?”

Nike was contacted to address some of these problems raised by Williams. The company responded with the following statement: “Consumer safety is of paramount important to us. We continue to work with our retail partners to share best practices and refine our launch process to improve the buying experience for our consumers. We encourage people wishing to purchase our products to do so in a respectful manner.”

Survival of the Fittest

It’s halftime, and Chicago leads New York by four points. But Michael’s got stuff to do.

An announcer reads: “Michael Jordan is CEO Jordan,” right before MJ sneaks out of the tunnel, throwing on a top hat and suit coat over his jersey as he rushes over to “Jordan Incorporated.” Hoards of business people flood the scene, all vying for his attention.

“Make the logo bigger,” he says.

He approves and denies authorization. He scans documents and offers his insights. In his office he examines towers of sneakers under the inspection number “23.” But don’t worry, he’s back in time to win the game, in new Air Jordans no less.

Michael Jordan was ushered into the world of celebrity on the sole basis of his athletic abilities. However, as we move past his active playing years, Jordan’s iconic status becomes grounded in something much less tangible.

“Now Jordans are basically a fashion staple. … I think there are teens that have no context for it. They just know they’re the most popular shoes,” Osborn says. “On their first go around, they were the best shoes endorsed by the best player that looked the best, and now the guy’s well retired and the shoes are made simply just for fashion.”

Nike’s Air Jordans are any business mogul’s dream product. With unprecedented brand loyalty, the shoes garner an unreal level of demand. Yet this demand transcends what Osborn cites as the most compelling factor of any sneaker — their association with a specific player — and become in themselves synonymous with wealth and style.

“What’s intriguing is that his competitiveness has become actually a cross-over element for him,” Hill says. “He’s seen as a perfect corporate spokesman because he embodies — he physically embodies — a valued competition, which can be appropriated into discussions of capitalism and predatory capitalism, like the notion of capitalism that is unfurling at the moment where he’s alive in the 1980s.”

The influence of Air Jordans has become so large that their iconic status now attracts the attention of artists. Take, for example, Jordan Weber of Des Moines, who incorporates Air Jordans into his artwork. He says their popularity helps illuminate problems within the community while also attracting the inner-city youth with whom he hopes to connect.

Jordan Weber manipulates classic Air Jordans to illuminate problems within communities.z

Jordan Weber manipulates classic Air Jordans to illuminate problems within communities.

Weber is no stranger to the demand the shoes have manufactured for themselves, “Nike has this anti-marketing machine where they only release a limited amount of their shoes in boutiques. So you can be that asshole that spends $400 on one pair of shoes and then everybody wants them,” he says. “Why would (Nike) make 50 pairs of these when I can make two and get the same amount of money, you know, when some group of kids is gonna fight each other over it.”

This competition — so vital to Jordan’s overall image — is integrated into every facet of the Air Jordan branding. From their limited release to the fights they instigate, the shoe completely mirrors the competitive spirit of their spokesman. An article by Wright Thompson published in ESPN in honor of Jordan’s 50th birthday says a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” A man whose obsessive desire to win extends well beyond the basketball court and onto the sidelines, golf course, blackjack table and even Sudoku. Jordan is a man who will settle for nothing less than the most desired sneakers on the market.

A History of Leadership

“Yo, Mars Blackmon here with my main man Michael Jordan.”

“Yo, Mike, what makes you the best player in the universe? Is it the vicious dunks?”

“No, Mars.”

“Is it the haircut?”

“No, Mars.”

“Is it the shoes?”

“No, Mars.”

“Is it the extra-long shorts?”

“No, Mars.”

“It’s the shoes then, right?”


“ … Money it’s gotta be the shoes! Shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, you’re sure it’s not the shoes?”

Mr. Jordan’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Nike, Inc.

Two legendary spokesmen in one simple ad campaign: Michael Jordan and She’s Gotta Have It front man, the basketball and Brooklyn-loving Mars Blackman (created, directed and played by Spike Lee). A match made in heaven when it comes to selling shoes, the two leverage their stardom to increase the appeal of their product.

“The question becomes what is your position as the chief spokesman and the chief brand manager of these shoes,” Hill says. “Jordan notoriously did not weigh in to reduce the price of Air Jordans. They’re provoking these skirmishes and battles. They’re ultimately leading to interracial violence, and to me it’s not worth it. If I have to sacrifice profitability, if I have to sacrifice the lucrative dimensions of my contract in order to allow or at least to try to shape the discourse, I would.”

As Air Jordans and the Jumpman trademark have boomed in popularity, many wonder where to draw the line in MJ’s involvement with the campaign. As a spokesman, he has thrown himself unrelentingly into the brand, considering his friends’ and family’s patronage as a sign of loyalty. In Thompson’s piece, Jordan’s friends joke about his tendency to look down to people’s feet. When his best friend, George Koehler, bought a pair of New Balance sneakers, Jordan insisted he get rid of them. Yet when it comes to the controversy Jordan is, uncharacteristically, hands off.

“I think he’s the damn devil now,” Weber says. “I felt a sense of betrayal looking up to him for so long, you know like 15 years looking up to this dude. Really educating myself and finding out who he really is and what he’s really done in the community. Which is nothing but add a lot of hatred and competition in his own race.”

Yet others are willing to cut the superstar a break. He is just a basketball player, after all. “What would they want him to say?” Winston asks. “He’s not like a civil rights leader. He’s not a leader that’s trying to progress us as black people or the culture. That’s not the reason why he’s there. He’s a businessman. He put out a product.”

Perhaps not Jordan, but Lee has ardently advocated for civil rights issues. He has spoken out on gentrification, famously critiqued Tyler Perry for perpetuating black stereotypes and even addressed issues and complications concerning violence in his breakthrough film, Do The Right Thing. He has positioned himself as a champion of African-Americans and has received backlash from critics on alleged hypocritical behaviors in his endorsement of Air Jordans. Comments to which he heatedly (and characteristically) turns back upon themselves. He wonders why we only ask such questions to black celebrities, while athletes like Larry Bird and Joe Montana go unquestioned.

For Hill, the inconsistency is in no way surprising, as the expectations for African-American figureheads have gradually shifted over time. In the past, celebrity and social-activism for black leaders were intrinsically intertwined. But now the titles have become more and more distinguished. “It’s already happening,” Hill says. “It’s already a conversation that’s in place, that as black celebrities are gaining more autonomy, as they are separating themselves from a need to call for or advocate on behalf of a collectivity in traditional ways. Just as there are expectations that a white mainstream would impose upon you, as far as black self presentation are concerned, there are also interracial expectations.”

A man whose own father was murdered as a part of an armed robbery gone wrong, Michael Jordan is rather detached from the Air Jordan killings, and he has become exceptionally accomplished at eluding questions concerning his own moral integrity. As violence continues to boil over, and rioting in connection to the shoes persisting for nearly 30 years, many of Jordan’s greatest fans have been left ignored and even abandoned by their idol.

“Is your intent purely to aggrandize your own bottom line?” Hill says. “Are you ultimately seeking to get rich and that’s what you want to do, or, is there opportunity here to leverage your wealth and to leverage your influence to create a critical dialogue or to raise some questions or to produce some sort of productive tension?”

The blame game aside, the successes of the Air Jordan shoes have come at a price, and some have not been granted the luxury of looking at the problem from a place of detachment.

“Michael Jordan nor Nike pulled the trigger that took my son’s life. But with great power comes great responsibility. Our name is on a product and we have a voice that can save a life, and I think we should use that voice,” Williams says. “So many of our youth look up to individuals that have their name on a shoe, and I think when significant chaos or murder is affiliated with that I think we have a responsibility to stand up and speak out. “

A young man practices alone, dozens of balls litter the ground. He makes jump shot after jump shot.

“And the ball said: Money doesn’t equal greatness. Cribs don’t equal greatness. Diamonds don’t equal greatness. Fame doesn’t equal greatness. Endorsements don’t equal greatness. Winning doesn’t equal greatness. Only greatness equals greatness. Only greatness equals greatness. Only greatness equals greatness.”

Photos courtesy of Megan Berberich and Jordan Weber



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